How does one say goodbye to an author who has accompanied so many of us to sea on hundreds of voyages, whose dog-eared paperbacks have sat by the captain’s chair on the bridge of so many warships for long days and nights in the Mediterranean, the Western Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Persian Gulf?
The passing of Patrick O’Brian represents a moment of very real loss for the naval profession. Over the course of his 85 years, he produced what many believe is the very best series of novels written about life at sea in naval combatants. His masterful Aubrey and Maturin series, comprising 20 volumes, is perhaps the greatest sustained work of historical fiction ever written, far exceeding—by every measure—the better-known Hornblower series by C. S. Forester. Some enthusiasts would even rank his work with that of Homer, an accolade the modest O’Brian instantly would have rejected—but secretly treasured.
The core of his oeuvre is the 20-volume series set in the early 19th century, chronicling the life and times of two principal characters: Jack Aubrey, the hearty, open-faced, honest, English master mariner and warrior sea captain; and the brilliant, quiet, introspective Irish-Spanish physician, spy, and naturalist ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. Joined in their late youth by a chance meeting at a classical music recital—a passion they improbably share—they develop a deep relationship that illuminates every corner of life at sea in a series of successful warships during the sweeping Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 1800s. In their lives ashore, they also provide a rich vision of life in early 19th-century England, full of brilliantly etched portraits of family life, business practices, commercial activities, and social mores—all in a style reminiscent of the best of Jane Austen.
The series begins with Master and Commander, which first appeared—to very little notice—in 1969. Running through some 6,000 pages, the series concluded last year with the publication of Blue at the Mizzen, in which the estimable Jack Aubrey finally achieves his heart’s desire—flag rank (the emblem of which is connoted by the title of the work). By the time the 20th and final volume appeared, Patrick O’Brian had become something of a cult figure, packing lecture halls on both sides of the Atlantic and routinely appearing on the best-seller lists. Throughout the series, both Jack and Stephen marry, have children, engage in famous battles, undertake improbable missions for the Crown, encounter both wild success and dismal failure, grow rich and poor, and find extraordinary adventures around the globe.
While both men possess many admirable qualities, neither seems quite whole by himself. Aubrey, a master at sea in leading men and a high practitioner of combat skills, is hopelessly lost ashore—where he meets with political, financial,
and social disaster by turns. Stephen, on the other hand, is an uninformed and unhandy sailor on board ship, but a deadly and efficient spy, linguist, duelist, and naturalist ashore. They do share some important qualities, among them physical courage, remarkable endurance, and a fondness for music (Jack, surprisingly, is the better of the two, and their duets on Jack’s violin and Stephen’s cello are much admired by their crews).
To create such a sustained fictional world is a wonderful literary achievement. But why does O’Brian appeal so deeply to naval professionals?
Perhaps by creating two such psychologically interesting figures in a brilliantly distilled historical setting, O’Brian also gives us a wonderful study of leadership and management at sea. The entire series is, in effect, a superbly realized running commentary on the leading of sailors into combat, shiphandling, and the art of organizing a ship. These are topics that account, in the end, for the extraordinary popularity of the series among naval professionals.
Jack explains at length what today we would call his command philosophy and even his apprehensions in command. For example, in The Far Side of the World, the tenth work in the series: “. . . his idea of a crack ship was one with a strong, highly skilled crew that could out maneuver and then out shoot the opponent, a taut but happy ship, an efficient man-of-war—in short a ship that was likely to win at any reasonable odds.” Throughout the entire series, Jack is extremely reluctant to use the common remedy of the lash to discipline his crew, preferring to create his idealized “taut but happy ship” through a combination of personal leadership, reasonable application of the rules, and a gift for tactical innovation. And he is nothing if not realistic in understanding command when he says in the same volume, “Although a Captain is married to his ship, it is with him as it is with some other husbands; there are certain things he is the last to know.”
Equally well realized by O’Brian is the moment just before Jack takes command of the sweet-sailing Sophie, his first ship in Master and Commander: “Walking down at a quarter to one, walking down to the waterside with the Crown behind him, he felt a curious shortness of his breath; and as he sat in the water man’s boat he said nothing but the word, ‘Sophie,’ for his heart was beating high, and he had a curious difficulty in swallowing. ‘Am I afraid?’ he wondered.”
He captures as well the essence of command in the moments leading up to action in Desolation Island, the fifth of the series: “These and many more were decisions that only he could take. Collective wisdom might do better, but a ship could not be a parliament; there was no time for debate. The situation was changing fast, as it often did before an action, when a whole carefully worked-out plan might have to be discarded in a moment, and new steps decided upon. This rested on him alone, and rarely had he felt more lonely, nor more fallible, as he saw the headland advancing towards him, and with it the moment of decision. The lack of sleep, the pain, the confusion of day and night for weeks on end, had told upon him; his head was thick and stupid; yet a mistake in the next hour might cost the ship her life.”
What is remarkable is the ability of O’Brian, who never joined the Royal Navy or served in combat, to capture so well the essential elements of the naval profession. O’Brian was born in England; his father was a physician and took his son sailing as a youth. During World War II, he drove ambulances and served in intelligence organizations, but his life was essentially one of reading and writing. He lived most of his mature life in the south of France, although he was visiting Dublin when he died on 2 January 2000. In addition to his nautical books, he wrote several other novels and biographies, including one of Joseph Banks, the English naturalist who traveled with Captain James Cook in the Pacific.
All in all, his was a quiet and introspective—albeit richly accomplished—life. Yet he brought so much joy to so many readers with his books. Indeed, as his principal character observed after touring his first ship and falling quickly into the natural rhythms of command, Jack—in a rare introspective moment—paused to reflect on the sudden distance between himself as captain and everyone else in the ship: “‘It is the price that has to be paid,’ he reflected. ‘And by God it’s worth it.’ As the words formed in his mind, so the look of profound happiness, of contained delight, formed once more on his shining face.” It is the look of pleasure not unlike the one that formed on the faces of thousands of readers each time a new Patrick O’Brian novel appeared; a particular kind of delight now denied to us forever.
All of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels are available from W. W. Norton Press.